Harvard Vs. Wharton: How Two B-Schools Played The Pandemic

Chad Losee, managing director of MBA Admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School (left) and Blair Mannix, director of MBA admissions at Wharton

Disrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19, the MBA admissions season that has led to this fall’s entering classes was the most uncertain and chaotic ever. Many of the decisions made during the early spring has had a big impact on the look and shape of this year’s incoming cohorts of MBA students.

If you’re looking for contrasts, look no further than Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, both of which published their class profiles last week for what will be the Class of 2022. The utter havoc of the admissions season is clearly reflected in those demographic snapshots that reflect the judgments of admission officials struggling to deal with all of the uncertainty and anxiety that came with the pandemic and the recession.

It’s nothing less than a tale of two business schools. The contrasts are stark. Harvard chose to enroll an entering class of just 732 first-year MBA students, roughly 200 fewer candidates than a more typical incoming cohort. It was the smallest HBS class in decades. Wharton, on the other hand, chose to break a record for the size of its entering class: 916 students, up 7% from the 856 who enrolled in the year-earlier class. The upshot: For the first time ever, a Wharton MBA class will be larger than Harvard’s.


The financial implications of the admission choices are significant. Harvard’s smaller class will cost it more than $16 million in lost tuition revenue in the first year alone. That loss occurs at a time when HBS has already predicted–long before the full impact of its admission decisions–that revenue will plunge $115 million and cause a $22 million loss for the school this year. Wharton, on the other hand, will achieve record MBA tuition revenue as a result of a class that is 60 students larger. If all of those students pay full freight for their degrees, that will mean an extra $4.8 million in tuition and fees this academic year, or nearly $10 million over the two-year program.

There are several reasons for this outcome, all within the control of the school’s admission chiefs. At HBS, Chad Losee, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, eliminated the school’s round three deadline in 2018. The last date by which Losee accepted applications from mainstream MBA candidates was Jan. 6–long before the pandemic hit. And unlike many of its counterparts at other business schools, he decided against adding a new deadline or extending his R2 cutoff once COVID changed everything.

Some business school deans, most notably UVA’s Darden School of Business Dean Scott Beardsley, immediately recognized that the pandemic-induced recession would bring a whole new crop of MBA candidates onto the market. Darden’s decision to extend its deadlines and go with a more flexible admissions policy led to a 25% jump in MBA applications. At HBS, apps were merely stable, rising under 1%, after two consecutive years of decline.


Blair Mannix, director of admissions at Wharton, actually decided to extend it due to the pandemic by 14 days to allow more candidates to apply. She made that decision as a direct result of feedback from applicants. Mannix also agreed to review applications from candidates who did not yet have an official standardized test score, giving candidates until early August to hand in official scores. She also extended the deadline for recommendation letters an extra five days.

The increased flexibility Wharton allowed, along with the retention of its third application deadline, helped the school gain a 21% rise in candidates seeking admission. So Wharton, and many other schools, got to see and choose from a much larger candidate pool, including many exceptional applicants that were locked out of HBS.

Losee made another decision as well that would contribute to the shortfall in this fall’s entering class. He granted deferments to any admitted students who requested them, whether they were domestic or international candidates. HBS made that policy decision when it became clear that many international students would have difficulty obtaining student visas while most embassies were shut down due to COVID. Some students, including those already in the U.S., might also decide not to attend HBS’ hybrid start where many classes would be taught online. The smaller class size at HBS this year is a direct result of this more liberal policy on deferments.


“The lack of a third-round hurt,” agrees Accepted.com founder Linda Abraham, “but HBS did something else that I think was well-intentioned, but turned out to be really costly in terms of enrollment and tuition revenue: It told accepted all applicants that they could defer, but had to choose to defer back in May. If things are uncertain now, they were more uncertain and scary then. Other schools did not make a blanket deferral offer. Students had to appeal individually to defer, and if the deferral wasn’t granted, had to give up their seat at a top-tier school while anticipating a more competitive cycle this year.”

Ordinarily, you would think all of this was to Wharton’s advantage. But many MBA admission consultants see it differently. They commend HBS for upholding its high admission standards are not bending to these unprecedented times. “I applaud HBS for what they did,” says Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, a top MBA admissions consulting firm. “It was probably not an easy decision to make.  It’s clear to me they did not sacrifice quality for numbers, even at the expense of less tuition revenue. If you are the number one brand in the world for something, this is what you do. There may be short-term financial pain, but in the long-term, this is one of the many things that help preserve the brand’s top place in the world.

“What HBS did makes me think of Chateau d’Yquem, a Sauternes that is truly in a class by itself at the top of all Sauternes. When they have a rare bad vintage (year), at great cost – tens of thousands of bottles – they will not put something on the market bearing their Château’s name that would be unworthy to be called a Chateau d’Yquem. The last time this happened was 2012.  As Chateau d’Yquem is to Sauternes, HBS is to business schools.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.